Friday, December 31, 2010


Well, it's been quite a year for us at Border Crossings! The production of Re-Orientations was a highlight, of course - especially the excitement of bringing the play to Shanghai, and the sell-out run there. It was the climax of two years' work - more, if you think in terms of the lead-in with the other Trilogy plays - and it truly lived up to the incredible work everybody had done to develop it.

We also ended the year on a high, with the Practice Exchange we organised with the Platform for Intercultural Europe. Very exciting for us to move into areas where we are dealing directly with policy. This has been a trend in our work for some time, not least in the Origins Festival. With another Origins planned for 2011, and the expansion of the Laboratory, we should be able to do a lot more to bring the arts into dialogue with policy-makers in the future.

One of the things enabling this is that, for the first time ever, we will have some revenue funding in place during 2011 to support a core staff. Thanks to the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation for this, and to the board, who have been so pro-active in developing the company to this point. We appointed our General Manager and Associate Director before Christmas, and I'll announce who they are in this blog and on the website once they are in post in January.

Elsewhere, the year has offered some exciting cultural experiences for me - though not that many of them in theatre, strangely enough. In the theatrical mainstream, I enjoyed the Cheek by Jowl Macbeth at the Barbican, and David Greig's not unrelated new play Dunsinaine at Hampstead. But my favourite theatre piece of the year, part of a very exciting LIFT season, was Life Streaming - which was hardly conventional theatre at all, but an online conversation with a survivor of the tsunami, sitting on a beach in Sri Lanka. Otherwise, my theatre highlights were actually operas, both directed by Richard Jones: Meistersinger in Cardiff, with Bryn Terfel, and Queen of Spades, which I saw in Houston.

The freelance job in Houston was also a big event for me this year - as much as anything just to get the chance to work with such an astonishing cast (Susan Graham and David Daniels to name but two). It also gave me one of the most profound experiences of the year - the Rothko Chapel. It was matched, in a very different way, by the powhiri given to Womad guests by the Maori of Taranaki in March.

In film, I'll confidently predict that Patagonia will be a big hit in 2011, and I loved the chance to watch The Baader-Meinhoff Connection on a plane!

In books, I particularly enjoyed Han Suyin's biography of Premier Zhou Enlai, Eldest Son, which I read in Shanghai. While I'm not totally convinced by her theory that China's embrace of capitalism represents the triumph of a policy Zhou was pursuing covertly throughout the Maoist era, she certainly demonstrates a surprising current of continuity running beneath the radical change. In the year a comic novel finally bagged the Booker, Ian McEwan's Solar failed to attract the expected attention, but I found it his strongest work since Atonement. Through farce and fury, it turns an acid gaze on our environmental myopia and emotional constipation. Dan Rebellato spoke at our Practice Exchange. His book Theatre & Globalization is an incisive, perceptive and witty polemic, which proves, among other things, that a loathing of near-slavery in Asia is not incompatible with eating sushi. He also provided another cyber-theatre event which lit up 2010, with his performance on Twitter during the Raoul Moat siege. So - how do we start to make intercultural theatre which relates to these new media?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Cuts

So, Vince Cable thinks that the Tory agenda is Maoist. He does have a point (except, to be fair to David Cameron, he wouldn't still be sitting at Mao's Cabinet table after what he's been saying). But, like the Mao of the Hundred Flowers policy and the Cultural Revolution, Cameron really does seem to believe that the role of government is to unleash anarchy. In which he has been remarkably successful so far.

In yesterday's Guardian, my signature was on a letter from artists resisting the cuts - though I'm not sure that direct resistance will have much effect on so determined an ideological agenda. What is probably needed is for Cable to exercise his "nuclear option" and resign, bringing down the government. After all, it is diametrically opposed to everything he ever stood for. If he left, then he could get the bulk of the Lib-Dem MPs behind him, topple the morally bankrupt Clegg and actually stand to do better in the election which Cameron would have to call. It feels like the only way to stop the rush into chaos. And this from somebody who doesn't normally think history is about the individual.

Still, while Vince remains Business Secretary, we carry on letter-writing. Karl Rouse from Central School asked me to sign one to Dave Willets et al, which has been sent to Ministers but not the press. Since I wrote some of it, I'm going to publish that section here, with Karl's agreement. It feels a bit like a credo for the current moment...

"One of the positive things which the new Prime Minister has done is the attempt to establish a measure of the nation's happiness, or well-being. Sadly, it is also something for which he has been much ridiculed. Happiness and well-being, it seems, are not matters for the serious business of politics, which should concern itself solely with economic growth and wealth creation. This is the prevailing view in civil society, and across the political spectrum - it was the Labour government which removed the Universities from the competence of the Department of Education, and turned them into an adjunct of the Business Department, so paving the way for the current decimation of any course not deemed to be of immediate use in training our young people to meet the demands of the private sector.

But wealth creation in and of itself cannot be the aim of any civilisation worth the name. We know that wealth does not bring happiness - indeed, that it often brings unhappiness. We know that the current economic system is directly responsible for an ecological crisis of unprecedented proportions. We know that the wealth of the West only exists because of the near slavery existing in other parts of the world. We also know that the economic system is imploding - why else is there this "deficit" which is being used to justify an attack on the future?

If our institutions for higher education are turned into a combination of training grounds for middle-management in computer companies and playgrounds for the children of the rich - and that is what the policy now before Parliament would surely render them - then our society will be forced to continue its subscription to this flawed, immoral and unsustainable global system. What we need - and need urgently - is a politics of the imagination which allows us to see outside the current paradigm and into a future where we will not systematically destroy our planet, where we will not pander to our own luxury at the cost of others' basic needs, and where we might just score a little higher on Mr Cameron's scale of well-being.

And that is why we need artists. Because art enables us to see the world from a different perspective. It enables us to empathise with the other. It compels us to look outside the narrow spaces of the everyday. Art is not a luxury to be tacked on to the edge of a society once it has dealt with other needs apparently more basic. Art itself is basic. Without it we lose our humanity and become mere machines.

Above all, we must not lose the capacity of our young people to be educated in art. They are the people whose vision can shape the future: but only if they can learn to see."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Practice Exchange

An exciting couple of days, hosting a Practice Exchange event which we produced jointly with the Platform for Intercultural Europe at Rose Bruford. Under the title Interculturalism: Art and Policy we were able to bring together some of the most exciting artists from diverse cultural traditions who are currently working in Britain, and to get them interacting with people from academia, policy-making, social and political activism etc. It's an important step for us as company - it gives us a voice in Brussels, and it brings our artistic work into dialogue with political processes. Right now, that seems a pretty urgent need.

There will be a full report by Brendan Jackson, which I'll post when it comes out, but in the meantime here are a few highlights!

Jatinder Verma gave an opening Keynote Speech about Intercultural theatre as it relates to European policy - you can listen to it online here. David Tse Ka Shing spoke about working with British East Asian communities, and also joined a panel on dialogues between diverse communities and the cultural sector, with Gabrielle Lobb from Polygon and Femi Elufowoju Jr.. In a particularly inspiring session, John Martin from Pan talked about his work with Refugee communities - with some really concrete examples of transformative events occurring for traumatised people, including former child soldiers.

All of this was very useful when it came to the discussions of policy on the second day. The people we'd expected from the Commission and the DCMS didn't turn up (of course), but their absence probably made it easier for us to talk freely about how intercultural arts can make their case - both the case for culture and the case for cultural diversity - at a moment when both are under threat. There was a brilliant talk by Graham Jeffery about the language gap between artistic idealism and political pragmatism, the use of evidence to bridge that gap, the quantifying of cultural value. Here's a link to Graham's blog - which is going to be worth watching as the current crisis deepens.

More to follow....

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Mulholland Drive

Now - call me out of date - but I've only just seen this incredible film. I was prompted by my friend Dimitrios's response to Re-Orientations: "It's like David Lynch!" Well - I had to investigate... I'm happy to say that on closer inspection:
1. It really is a compliment and
2. I think it's probably true!

Where our work overlaps with Lynch is in the shifting nature of reality - the way in which a narrative refuses to explain everything, but allows itself to elude and mystify the audience with hints and surprises, just like life itself. The film, like our play, is set in a world of performers - and very often life seems to imitate art, rather than the other way round. Perhaps we make art - narrative - as a way of making sense of lives which are in fact largely arbitrary.

And Mulholland Drive (or - strictly - Mulholland Dr., for which read "dream") has an apparently realistic surface which is constantly shattered or disrupted by illusions, fantasies and imaginings. It dares to show, in the conventionally realistic form of cinema, what goes on invisibly in the subconscious. That's something else we're very keen to do in our work.

Where the film gets really radical is about three-quarters of the way through, when there is apparently a total reversal of realities, and the main characters seem to be re-created as different figures - still related to the main story but with different personalities, and different names. When it was first released, everybody complained that it was nonsense - but actually life can be very like that - and so can dream. I'd love to attempt an inversion so brave as that one!

Here's a link to a great blog about watching the film - a useful companion!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gothenburg and home

Saturday night saw a great Swedish feast at Teater Eksem's Gothenburg HQ, which gave me the chance to thank everybody properly. It was quite emotional - the end of two years' work with a very inspiring and tightly knit group of people. Not that it will be an end really - the show may well come back, and even if it doesn't the potential legacy projects are legion.

Still, we went into the final show on Sunday with a combined sense of loss and determination to be brilliant - and as a result had an amazing night. Last shows are often faintly disappointing, because the cast strive for a definitive performance and there really is no such thing. But this show, which is in many ways about loss, benefited hugely from the circumstances, and was very moving and beautiful. At the reception afterwards, the Swedish managements, funders and artistic guests all kept using the same word: "poetic". I like that. The performance was in the space at Pustervik, where I saw Victoria perform in the Festival on my first Swedish trip in 2008. Exciting to end the project in this lovely space which I know from its beginnings.

Filip and I shared the driving of the van to Dusseldorf on Monday, and then I did the last slog through the fog of northern Europe on Tuesday. The air of melancholy was appropriate, I suppose. But I didn't linger in it for long - the emails and meetings have been constant since I got back, and of course we are recruiting staff!

Saturday, November 13, 2010


That's Boras - not Borat. Cultural Learnings of Sweden Make Benefit Glorious Nation China. The town where we performed last night.

To be honest, we didn't expect much of Boras. It's an industrial town, a bit grey and rainy, and nothing like as pretty as Skovde was in the snow the other day. The theatre is a converted 50s cinema, with architecture that wouldn't have disgraced Stalinism, and Filip confessed it was really only in the tour so that there were three regional venues. When we set out from Gothenberg yesterday morning, only 15 people had booked to see the show there, in spite of the radio and TV coverage.

In a way, I guess that meant the pressure was off. Lloyd, Amy and Dori were very relaxed as they sorted out the set and lights, and we looked through all the states in detail. We even had time to rehearse some of the more tricky scenes on the tiny stage. No dimmer panics here: a new improved show featuring actors in light! So - oddly - we had rather a wonderful night. Especially since the audience which actually walked through the door was large, lively, diverse and appreciative. Lots of rhythmic clapping at the end. People buzzing with joy to have seen work of this kind in such an unlikely place.

Oddly, the final scene, which was a comic highlight in both London and China, doesn't seem to appeal to the Swedish sense of humour. With only three performances here, it's tricky to re-work it, but I'm fascinated to know why (and so far I have no idea). Other comedy works really well - especially, and not surprisingly, the tri-lingual scene in which Maja and Sammy learn bits of Swedish and Chinese. The Miss Julie bits have a strong resonance too. All part of the fascinating journey of this show between different very specific local responses to global ideas.

I've been reading some of the new Plagrave series of Theatre and... books since I've been here: specifically Ric Knowles on Interculturalism and Dan Rebellato on Globalization. I'm starting to wonder if it's right to define what we are doing as intercultural theatre. In Knowles's terms, this idea seems suspect, smacking of cultural imperialism, unless it's a form of "interculturalism from below", by which he means work initiated by non-white cultures and by-passing white mediation. Which doesn't cover us. A closer approximation is the idea of cosmopolitanism, at least as explained by Rebellato, who puts it forward as a positive response to globalization, which avoids the capitalist imperative of that movement, and the Luddism of localist response. In the end, theses are all just words, but they help to stimulate artistic and political ideas about where we might go next.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Touring Sweden in the snow

Skovde is a little town, about two hours' drive from Gothenburg. We got there in our van, a hired minibus and a little car driven by yours truly - up from the coast past lakes, forests and elk in the deep snow. Spatica, who arrived a day late because of the inevitable visa complications, was bouncing arond the car like a child on speed - you don't see much snow in Bangalore. Mia says it's strange for Sweden in early November, but anywhere there it was. Once we got to Skovde we had a snowball fight. Jue lost.

The theatre in Skovde is beautiful - modern, open and acoustically warm. It also has dimmer racks which don't work - so they had to be replaced before we could focus the lighting rig. As a result, the planned dress rehearsal went by the board - leaving Dori to operate her first show as her first run-through. It didn't seem to faze her as much as it did me. The lighting was actually more of a problem than the video, since we had no time to work through the cues or to make focus adjustments. There were key moments which were very dark, and moody moments that were too bright. It was all a bit of a mess, to be honest. And nobody's fault, really.

Still, the audience enjoyed the night. And it was a big audience too - several schools seemed to have decided this was one for their older pupils, so there was a large teenage contingent. The humour was as lively as it was with other young audiences - though in slightly different places, of course. One of the great joys of this project is the way the play's meaning alters slightly with every different audience. We changed a couple of moments - Bjorn's award acceptance now goes into Swedish when he's becoming most personal with Maja, and his "meltdown" is in a mixture of Swedish, English and Chinese. He also translates Radhakrishna's poem into Swedish. Oddly, I find the music of Swedish and Kannada rather similar. For the first time, this sounds like a duet.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Road Movie

At 9am on Sunday, Lloyd arrived at my house with a fully loaded van, hired from another theatre company, which, in the interests of charity and solidarity, will remain nameless. The idea was that we would take two days to drive it to Sweden for the next leg of the tour.

At 9.20, it ground to a halt on the M25. Total stasis. The engine wouldn't re-fire. I phoned the RAC. Forty minutes later Derek showed up (this is the cameo which Michael Gambon will play in the road movie). Derek looked under the bonnet and shook his head. The engine rattled about. He employed a few choice technical terms to suggest that we weren't going to get to Sweden in this particular van. He then said that, even though we'd specifically taken RAC international cover for it, and that I'd been told my personal cover would work in the UK, this van was too big for them to recover. And he left us at the side of the road.

The van itself seemed to have AA cover. So that was worth a try. Forty minutes later Jeff showed up (this is more a John Hurt role). He instantly towed the van. To Thurrock services. There it ws met by a mechanic who agreed that Derek had been right. At least the AA would take it home - but that was that.

Phoned Nisha and got her to do some mad Googling. Somehow she managed to find the only van hire place in the entire world which is open on Sunday mornings and hires vans to go to Sweden. She then drove round to Thurrock, children in tow, to pick us up. By now it was 1pm, and the van hire place closed at 1.30. I drove like a lunatic back to Enfield, and somehow made it in time to hire the new van. We drove it to Thurrock services, and re-loaded everything in the rain on the car park tarmac. Luckily another AA tow-truck arrived with perfect timing to deal with the wreck, and we were on our way. We finally made it to Calais at 6.30pm - when it had been planned for noon.

Somehow, with insane dashing through Europe and a snatched kip in Dortmund, we made it to Sweden by Monday night. It's very cold here. Snowing. But the team is re-assembled.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

London Film Festival

The London Film Festival hasn't featured quite so prominently in the Border Crossings psyche this year as it did for the last two - but at least I was here for some of it. Next year I'll be in San Francisco for the whole of October. It's always a rich and fascinating festival, and a source of new ideas. This year I've been looking for films which I might include in the next Origins programme, which we're developing for 2011, and for a sense of exciting things happening around the world! I was very sad to miss Pudana: Last of the Line, which deals with indigenous people from Siberia and the boarding schools, and Southern District, just because it's from Bolivia, where so much exciting indigenous thought is developing. The other film from Latin America which sounded very relevant to Origins, Even the Rain, got withdrawn from the Festival.... But I did see the wonderful Patagonia, which is an indigenous film from Wales, made largely in Welsh, and dealing with the presence in Argentina of a Welsh-speaking community. This suggested new ways in which the next Festival might start to look at the indigeniety question, and engage with it through communities who are actually here right now.

I also saw Heartbeats from Quebec, Godard's beautiful but impenetrable Film Socialisme, and a little dose of China (well, Taiwan) to re-charge my Oriental batteries: When Love Comes by Chang Tso-Chi. This film's gentle games with family and culture struck a lot of chords.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Reactions from China

Roshni emails to tell me what the students had to say about the show on their return to Ningbo.

"Had an hour follow up discussion with the students. They were completely stunned by the play and said that, as I did to you, they found it difficult to know what their reactions actually were, having never experienced anything like this. We started by discussing what the play was about which was (rightly) tricky and we got a number of contradictory responses which was fruitful - play is about culture clash, play is about multiculturalism, play about culture mixing. I then asked for 5 most striking things to them as individuals and that have stayed with them since. We got some very good things, lesbianism being one. They almost all picked up on it - we were not convinced that they would. They were quite a literate audience by any standards. There was an energetic debate over the wrongs or not of Sammy selling his body. There was some good and honest reflection on the one child policy and female infanticide in China. I drew parallels to other countries, India being an obvious one. There was only a tiny bit of the-world-is-against-China paranoia. Someone suggested it was wrong and biased to represent China's past on the infanticide front but someone else said that this still happened. Big things happened in this class. Oh and someone said that lesbianism did not exist in China until foreigners introduced it. So, please send me details of the Chinese poetess so I can forward details to them. We talked openly about censorship! Someone had already leaked the answer to that last question to some of them. But the rest of them guessed or when they found out they were not suprised - ancestor worship being not even a religion and the kind of mumbo-jumbo that the Party disapproves of was the response. I pointed out that this is more than acceptable among the Chinese diasproa in Mauritius for example. And someone concluded that most Chinese do do these rites anyway in China, party line or not...

We talked about narrative techniques, non-linearity, multiple persepctives, paradox - all of which are the stuff that real and increasingly globalised life is made of.

Fascinating stuff. Several of them said that they found Linda to be an intriguing character - the packing in of a good job to be a dancer. I finished with the question of whether as English Studies students (as opposed to Business Studies which almost all parents try to coerce their children into) they were doing something similar?

I'm still gobsmacked by all this and it certainly gave me a sense of purpose and fulfilment as an academic that I would struggle to find amongst our more jaded English students."

And this is from a young Chinese audience member:

"You know, as human beings, we don’t really have the right to choose a lot of things; our gender is one of them. When we were born, we were decided to be girl or boy by the god. Usually we just accept it and go on to living as whom we are, and we maybe never thought of why we are women or men. When someone behaves in the opposite way, we just think “what’s wrong with him/her?” No one would think about the original life. And we cannot choose where to be born either.

Because of the gender and the place which we couldn’t even decide by ourselves, we living in very different ways. Someone faced to death directly, like Cuihua’s daughter. And someone who like to be a woman, but born to be a man, like Sammy. Though he is brave to change, and make money in his way, he has to burden a lot of course.

And as Alex, she is the one who cannot live with questions. She loves Song, Song loves her too, but her act of that, is escape, escape from the life, escape from “odd acting”. Maybe her parents’ marriage is a tragedy, which affects her; maybe she just wants to have the “mummy’s love”. She tried, but failed, so, to take rebirth is a better way for her, just like Velu’s feeling about his girl. She dances like a swan, and the swan lowed its head when Julian and Mary being together. Because of their acting, she came into this world, and that brings her a lot of sadness.

We should try new things, instead of ordered by other people or life. Actually, there are so many things in our life, which make us hard to change, hard to being ourselves, but that’s the real life. That’s what Linda. Maya and even Johan’s doing.

Just like this show, we couldn’t know what our life want to tell us, but we living in it.

In my opinion, this show is kind of having philosophy meaning. And I really surprised you can put those ideas into one show. The more I saw it, the more I want to re-consider my own life. That’s the interesting part for me---thinking.

One of my teachers said: yesterday is destiny, but you’re the master of your future. I like this, and it’s a good conclusion of Re-Orientations I think."

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Jia tong University

On Monday, Haili and I were at Shanghai's Jia Tong University, as part of their UK Culture week. We did a workshop on different approaches to performance (the madness of improvisation, contrasted with the discipline of yueju), and then had a long question and answer session, which reminded me of conferences with academics who are more interested in how clever their question sounds than in the answer. Still, it was a fascinating day, at one of China's leading academies, which is anxious to expand its arts provision (UK take note!). The students had been at the final, packed performance the previous night - and were very excited about what they'd seen.

So, it seems, were the Chinese artists and management. If all the plans that have been hatched go well, then we'll be back very soon, doing something every bit as exciting... I just need to work it through in my mind!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Packed houses in China

I took the train down to Ningbo on Thursday, to meet up with Roshni Mooneeram and do a workshop for her students on the Nottingham University campus there. This is becoming a bit of an annual event - the last one was a riot. This year Roshni predicted there would be about 30 students there, of whom some would be too shy to take part. As it turned out, there were 150+, all of whom were desparate to act their socks off. Quite a challenge for a 90 minute workshop.

As with the Shanghai workshop last Sunday, I decided to work from images. It was fascinating to see what was in the psyche of these young Chinese people. The idea of shame was very strong - lots of images of an individual being harangued by the mob: the Cultural Revolution lives on.... There was one extraordinary scene in which a Western male student improvised a liaison with a Chinese prostitute: incredibly daring for a young Chinese performer. This girl, who calls herself "Ivy", turns out to be one of Roshni's most capable students, and gets the job of showing me a bit of Ningbo the next morning. She's very articulate - and wants to be a playwright. She's also very aware that it's virtually impossible to make a living that way. Her parents want her to switch to Business Studies. We wonder arond Ningbo's huge and beautiful lake, looking at old women washing clothes in its waters, and carrying them back into ramshackle old houses. They've probably lived here all their lives - and yet seen so much change.

Roshni had booked a bus to bring a student party up to Shanghai to see the show, so I travelled back with them. It was lovely to get chance to have long chat with Roshni - about the vagaries of working with China, about Dev Virahsawmy's newer plays, and about her developing critical ideas about cosmopolitanism. A much more alive and interesting approch than post-colonialism, which is, as she says, "a bit tired" as a theory now.

The show is entering its final weekend in Shanghai, and is selling out. Not that this means it's full - at least until half an hour into the show, when the last of the audience has finally arrived. I'm learning to accept the constant coming and going, the glow of the mobile phones, the chattering and the general lack of reverence. In fact, last night I became very aware of the fact that they weren't just talking - they were participating very actively in the performance, explaining to one another what was going on, or getting excited about images and ideas. What's more, the audience is going on a real journey with the play. By the second half, there is a palpable calm in the room, and an intensity of concentration and absorption which is all the more telling for being so uncharacteristic.

All of which is very gratifying.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Great Exhibition

The cover of our Shanghai programme features the logo of 2010 Shanghai World Expo, so I thought I should spend a day at the site. I am sorry to say that I found it repulsive. If ever there were evidence of the current moral, cultural and spiritual bankruptcy of the human race, this is it. The national pavilions take the cliches of their perceived identities and parade them with no sense of their history, geography or context, so that they become nothing but vapid branding for the government's attempt to attract Chinese investment. At times this is laughable - the moment when a video climaxes in the rising skyline of Shanghai to the tune of "Land of Hope and Glory" being one example, and the EU's "typical European day" ending with a restuarant, an opera and a football match is another - but at other times it is so deeply disturbing as to bring you close to tears. In the Australian pavilion, for example, there are some carvings on show in the indigenous style. They are devoid of context, presented as national branding, placed so as to encourage people to strike silly poses beside them and have their photos taken. The true worth of this art as the spiritual expression of a people is insulted. All considerations, it seems, must be dismissed beside the economic imperative.

The only pavilion with any hint of integrity (except possibly the British, which I didn't see, but Tony did and liked) is the UN one. Here at least there is no market force at work, and so there are gentle reminders of the Millennium Goals and our utter failure to meet them. There is no queue to get into this pavilion. On the other hand, the China Pavilion has a queue two hours long. On a Monday.

Given the emptiness of so much current cultural fare, I am finding the profundity of the Chinese audience's response to our work very remarkable. On Sunday, I led a workshop for about 30 people, mainly younger ones, at SDAC. The level of creativity on display was extraordinary. They very quickly grasped the idea of working without text, of improvisation, of starting from objects or images. There was a brilliant scene about basketball and group dynamics, a very funny one about people escaping from prison (interesting given the recent news), a disturbing one about people losing limbs, and at least two car-crashes. All done with a great deal of warmth and laughter. The resilience of human creativity never ceases to amaze me.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Liu Xiaobo

A very interesting moment to be in China.... The second the Nobel Peace Prize was announced, CNN and BBC World went dead in our hotel. There is, of course, no reportage in the local media, although it is still possible to find English news on line. The firewalls are definitely even higher than before, though.

From a purely selfish standpoint, we're hoping that the Chinese government's fury only extends to Norway (which by historical accident awards this particular prize), and not to the main Nobel country, Sweden. If it does, then we can forget the last leg of this project. I suspect we'll be OK. China is too pragmatic to be consumed with irrational fury these days.

Liu Xiaobo probably doesn't even know he's won the prize. Neither do the bulk of his countrymen. But it's a bold and powerful decision - far better than the token nod towards Obama for not being Bush last year, and much better than the travesties of awards to Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat and Menachim Begin. This is a man who has made it his life's work to strive towards human rights in China, and has sacrificed any semblance of a normal way of living to achieve that aim. Reading his speech from the dock, you cannot but be incredibly moved.

The strange thing is that his talk of liberation and human dignity is very similar to the rhetoric of the people who founded the PRC. Or at least some of them. Since I've been here, I've been reading Han Suyin's wonderful biography of Premier Zhou Enlai, and this morning I visited the former home of Soong Chingling. What I've been realising is that these two great figures were survivors from the intellectual end of the communist revolution, and that their vision and idealism was constantly undermined by Mao's insistence on the inherent wisdom of the peasantry. The contemporary Chinese mistrust of debate and engagement is not simply an authoritarian thing - it also goes back to the conflicts of the Cultural Revolution period.

So our work, aiming to provoke the audience into thinking for itself, is a very radical thing here. We are not presenting a piece which offers neat solutions and easy answers. We offer a range of possibilities. This may well bemuse many of the audience - but that fact is itself the proof of its necessity.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Opening in China

There's a scene in the show about a Swedish company having a very difficult technical rehearsal in Shanghai. Art has been blending with life for the last few days..... Much of the problem is language, of course - but it really didn't help matters when our video camera disappeared, when the person operating the supertitles only arrived on the day of the show, and when Lloyd cut his hand open to the bone and needed surgery..... !

Anyway - we got there, and finally reached the climax of two years' work last night, when we played to a packed house of Chinese people. It was, of course, a completely different experience from performing in London. To begin with, the piece seemed less funny and more elusive - the style was clearly something very new for them, and they took time to respond. Qi's scenes with Mia got the laughter going - and this led to a really powerful sense of emotion as the play moved into more specifically Chinese areas of concern. The montage of Sammy's family history was incredibly powerful - and so was the story of Tsrui-hua and the abandoned baby.

We'd had some discussion of the ending before the show. Nick Yu was concerned that it might be controversial - apparently a play was banned a few years ago for its portrayal of traditional rituals surrounding death. The powers that be decided that this was "encouraging superstition", and so not appropriate to the image of a modern, "progressive" society. As so often, China wrong-footed me: I'd have expected concern over references to sexuality, to the single-child policy and the Cultural Revolution - but I'd never imagined that a scene about spiritual tradition could be considered sensitive. But, of course, it is. And the reason I like the scene - its affirmation of the value of these practices for today - is exactly the reason why. In China, the spiritual is political.

We (by which I mean the Chinese actors and myself, consulting with Nick) decided that we should keep the scene as it stands. So we were very aware of the resonances when it began. Jue said her line about "In my country, people believe...", and started to show the rituals - and the laughter grew louder and louder. Laughter not of mockery but of recognition. Even of celebration. Delicious, joyous, celebration.

What a wonderful night.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Shanghai homecoming

The firewalls are high in China - so high that this post is being emailed to my friend Kate for posting. I'm used to not being able to read my blog in China - now I can't write it either. Neither can I use Facebook or Twitter. I suspect the regime got twitchy about Twitter after events in Iran. So those who follow Border Crossings, think of this as a clandestine despatch.

We've arrived here on planes from London, Bangalore and Gothenburg over the last couple of days, to be met by the smiling Tracy Lu (our SDAC project manager) and the vista of a city in the grip of Expo 2010. We drove past the Expo park on our way in from the airport - it's space age and packed to bursting. The Expo label is on our publicity, together with that of Starbucks (with a certain irony!). SDAC have been very clever. The poster has layers of photos from the show, rendered into psychedelic colours - so it's much more clearly aimed at a younger audience than our London one was. Lesson for the future.

Earlier in the week, I was thinking we were never going to get here. The shipping company Lloyd had asked to deal with our set freight turned out to be totally incompetent. I name no names..... but having taken the set to Heathrow on Sunday, it was fairly horrific to discover on Tuesday that it was still there, and that there was no prospect of it entering Shanghai for "several weeks". Lloyd and I drove to Heathrow on Wednesday, picked it up, demanded a full refund, and re-wrapped it so we could take it on the plane with us. We pitched up as a group of seven, with our cases, several rolls of mirrored dance floor, two long drapes and various cases of props. Amazingly, China Eastern Airlines were fine about the whole thing - as were Chinese customs. And with a huge sigh of relief we walked out into the Shanghai sunshine.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Great reviews for Re-Orientations

Reviews for Re-Orientations are really exciting - and so is the audience response. I hadn't realised until I saw the show at Soho just how funny it is!

Here are some quotes from the reviews and links:

"Deeply felt, powerfully performed, beautifully staged production" -Londonist

"Impressive, bold in ambition and fluid - like Robert Lepage.... Exquisite moments.... a terrific scene milking the comedy of cultural confusion" - Guardian

"Lives and cultures collide - sometimes violently - in this kaleidoscopic drama... intersecting stories set against a backdrop of hectic, often striking visuals.." - Times

"The visuals are stunning with video integrated into the action and choreography by French dance company a fleur de peau. I also love the way the company interweave different art forms and acting styes.... the company has also scored a real coup in engaging the talents of the great Chinese actress Song Ru Hui" - Theatreworld

"A two hour visual feast... Outstanding performances by Spatica Ramanujam with her exquisite comic timing and superb characterisation, and Qi Bai Xue's striking stage presence" -

There's only a week left to catch this acclaimed production at Soho Theatre before it tours to Shanghai and Sweden. Click here to book now!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

One week in

The show has been playing for a week now - two previews, press night and the first "real" shows. The press night was a wonderful evening - a real pay-off after such a long process of creation. Everything melded very beautifully, and the audience response was ecstatic. Quite a few people on their feet. My friend Stewart, who runs the Barbados Festival, said it was like the best meal he'd ever eaten - there were so many different dishes, so beautifully blended.

The first reviews are out too. There are brilliant ones on Londist and spoonfed, suggesting (as I suspected) that this is work with a strong appeal to younger, web-savvy, cosmopolitan people. There are some great comments in the newspapers too - The Guardian calls it "Impressive, bold in ambition and fluid - like Robert Lepage on a teeny budget" and The Times talks about the way "Lives and cultures collide — sometimes violently — in this kaleidoscopic drama.... intersecting stories set against a backdrop of hectic, often striking visuals."

As sometimes happens, some of the most illuminating comments are actually ones which are intended negatively. The broadsheet critics are clearly coming from a tradition of lit.crit., and are looking for well-made plays with psychological, naturalistic solutions. Which isn't quite what we do! In The Times, Sam Marlowe says that "The characters are manipulated by the multi strand plot, like lifeless puppets." She doesn't mean it as a compliment - but it's exactly right. Indeed, at times we clearly show the characters as puppets - as in this photo of Hui! The point is that people are not always autonomous individuals in control of their own destiny, as western thought would like us to believe. They are very much at the mercy of history, of culture, of structures. In the Asian theatre, actors are always manipulated in some way - by puppetry, by masks, by the form. In drawing off these traditions, we're finding a more radical way of looking at the world.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Press Night tonight

The show has now had two previews, and tonight we let in the journalists, and invite our guests. It's a pretty important moment for the company, and I have to confess I feel more than slightly nervous!

To keep me centred, I've answered a few more questions from the marketing people in Shanghai. Here they are!

1. The play is dramatizes a series of disasters; Tsunami, Storm, abandoned baby. Is there a theme of doom and gloom to the play?

Anything but, actually! Something I've found whenever I've travelled to places where terrible things have happened, is that people are incredibly resilient. Where you expect to see "doom and gloom" you actually get vitality, humour, sexiness, and energy.

When we were first working on the play in Shanghai, we noticed that the western people often expected the Asians to have tragic tales to tell - and the Asian people responded by telling them. But we also noticed that the context was lively, buoyant and colourful. So we wanted to overturn the westerners' idea of a doom-laden East.

This is a play about what happens in the aftermath of tragedy - so of course it acknowledges the tragedies, but it also deals with the comedy and the energy that can follow.

How will your new play explore gender relationships as the others did?

The play has a number characters who are involved in relationships with people of the same sex - and the opposite sex. In this play, sexuality is a very fluid thing - people aren't tied down to a specific way of being. I think that we live in a time where lots of the old-fashioned divisions into East and West, male and female, gay and straight and so on don't really make sense. It's much less clear cut than people used to think.

It seems that political interest has filtered through to cultural interest in your plays, especially with China and India. Has the global economic shift towards the two countries played a big role in your new play?

Yes! Our theatre is very much a theatre for the globalised world. It's about the way in which people live now that we're all so mingled together, and the differences that this makes to our dealings with one another. The political and social changes in Asia are some of the most important facts in the world today. It's changing everything, and as artists we have to respond to that.

How do the cultures intermingle in the new play? united through crisis?

I'm not sure that they are united through crisis. I don't think the world has got to that stage yet - I wish it had. I think what happens in the play is actually what happened in our devising process - that people form very different backgrounds, with a range of different languages, are forced by the situation they are in to find ways of making contact. However temporarily.

Does the play have a moral ending, teach us anything about the world today? Will we be 're-orientated' as such?

I don't think it has a moral in a strict sense - but I do think it forces people to reconsider their identity - just as the characters do.

What influences does the play follow? historical, traditions, news coverage?

There are so many! The recent histories, of course. Yakshagana, Yueju, Strindberg, news media, rock videos, experimental film....

7. What sort of themes to the play are there, morally/culturally?

It's very much a play about how we can learn to live together. On one level, we've had to do that as a company, working together with no single common language, in order to create the piece. Our little room has been a laboratory for the way the world could work. It's been about exploring ways of communicating, ways of being in your own culture and retaining your identity at the same time as living in a globalised multicultural space. And, as with all devised theatre, the process by which it is made is reflected in its meaning. The play has an extraordinary diversity of characters - all those nationalities, different ages, different sexualities, different political standpoints, rich and poor - and they struggle to survive when they are thrown together. Hence the title. People have to Re_orient themselves, to change, if they are to co-exist.

8. How will Re-orientations mix the contemporary with the old world?

History shapes us and is with us all the time. Perhaps especially in a society which is changing as rapidly as China, you can only really make sense of the present in terms of the past. So the play has a very strong sense of the presence of ghosts - either of close personal relationships or of wider histories. And these ghosts are reflected in the use we make of older cultural forms, like Beijing opera, Yueju and Yakshagana, and even Strindberg's Miss Julie. Our modern theatre only makes sense as something emerging from a broad range of living global traditions.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Questions from Shanghai

We're in the last week of our rehearsals. It's a fascinating process, and I only wish there was time to blog it properly. Come along to Soho Theatre next week, and you'll see what I've been on about for two years!

Meantime - here's a little Q&A I did for the Shanghai publicity people:

1. What was your purpose in setting up Border Crossings?

Border Crossings is an attempt to make theatre about what it feels like to be alive in the current moment, when the world is so much more integrated than ever before. We wanted to set up a company which allowed different cultures to speak to each other, directly and equally, and which explored the ways in which theatre could bring about cross-cultural dialogues and exchanges.

2. What would you like to express through the series of Orientations plays?

These plays came about through an interest in traditional Asian performance forms, and particularly the forms where men play women and women play men. It was interesting to see how this might reflect some of the changes going on in gender relationships around the world. The plays have moved on a lot from that start point - but they are still about the many different forms of human love, and about the ways in which sexual relationships and cultural relationships overlap.

3. What does Re-Orientations talk about?

This is a play about the aftermath of catastrophe. All the main characters are dealing with some sort of loss. Julian and Marie are dealing with the loss of their daughter, and Song that of her lover. Tsrui-hua and Velu have also lost children. I suppose it's to do with the sense that we may have lost our future, and that many aspects of our past are difficult to face. It's about asking how we can move forward in the 21st century.

4. What's the speciality of the production Re-Orientations?

I think audiences will be very struck by the way we use lots of different languages on stage - Chinese, English, Swedish, Kannada... This is what the world is like now, of course - just walk down Nanjing Lu and you'll hear many languages spoken - but it's rare for the theatre to take this on, and still tell a story in a way that a whole range of audiences can understand. We also use lots of different theatrical languages - naturalism, film, yeuju, yakshagana, ballet, modern dance, projected textÉ. We wanted to come at the story from as many different angles as we could. I should add that the whole play has been made by the actors: there is no writer as such and no pre-existing script. We didn't know what the story would be before we started to work on stage.

5. Why did you choose Shanghai Dramatic Arts Centre as your partner?

SDAC was the only company I knew of in China which had the artistic vision and the capacity to be our partner organisation. I'd got to know the company's work over the course of several visits to Shanghai, and in particular Nick Yu's desire to engage in cultural dialogue, and to work in modern and innovative, experimental ways. When we found the three actors who are involved, we realised just what an exciting journey this would be.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Drastic Decisions

Almost two weeks into rehearsals, and not been blogging it. Sorry! It's been a very, very busy time. And a very creative and exciting one.

We started work with the wonderful Geraldine Alexander as PK, replacing Nancy Crane. She worked hard and worked beautifully. At the end of the first week, both she and I realised that the character didn't have a story - indeed, didn't have a role in the piece. Everything she did would work better if it were done by somebody else. So we cut the character - and luckily Geraldine was happy to leave the project in its best interests.

Gerry - if you're reading this, there will be another time.

We've gone on to hone and tighten the plot-lines, and the show is much more precise and focused as a result. In fact, it's all getting rather exciting. One more week of rehearsals, and then we have audiences from the 7th.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Lakes

Somewhat recklessly, given the imminence of rehearsals, I had a week off last week, and went to the Lake District with the family. Of course, it wasn't really a week off - although I did manage only to go online twice all week - once to do a general catch-up and once in response to panic text messaging about EU budgets and marketing invoices.

But, for the artistic bit of me, any new environment is full of stimuli. And the Lake District seemed particularly so. There were people acting as Romans on Hadrian's Wall. There was the joy of reading Wordsworth in his own house - much easier to be a pantheist if you live in Grasmere! There was the strange experience of Long Meg and Her Daughters - a stone circle which reminded me how little connection we have with our indigenous culture... There was even a free festival of puppet performance which we stumbled upon in Penrith. And, of course, all the time the play just gnawing at my mind... in a positive way.

Back to all sorts of dramas. The Chinese actors still don't have visas. Not much I can do to help - exit visas are the issue. Some of our funding applications have been rejected - but one very important one has come through. Of which more anon....

Friday, July 30, 2010

Che Kwan's internship

Che Kwan finished with us today after a seven-week placement as a Production Assistant, focussing on our work with China.

Here is what she had to say about the experience:

"I think I had a unique internship that not everyone has the chance to experience. Most of my schoolmates work in business firms or big companies, staying in the office for the whole day and dealing with the paper works.

Border Crossings is a small theatre organization, but here I can see exactly how things work with a limited budget, like using the internet to connect and promote about Re-Orientations, writing application forms for funding, going around China Town and ask for making advertisement (although I failed the task)… In here I can see the possibility of my future career. In
Hong Kong, everything is about business and money, that seems to be the only way to success and I am always confused about my future because that’s not the way I want to go. The experience in Border Crossings makes me believe that it is possible to go a different way from the mainstream society.

Although theatre organizations seem to have nothing to do with what I am studying, I am very happy to find that they are actually related— some themes in Re-Orientations, like homosexuality, cultural and language issues, are just like the topics I am studying in university, just with a different form of expression, I am very happy to find that Sociology is everywhere!

I also learnt a lot about the theatre community. Before coming, my only theatre experience is watching dramas in
Hong Kong and I always only focus on the story and actors. During the internship, I see there actually need to be many parts to form a theatre production—actors, actors, lighting, stage design… and every part have its own message and is helping to tell a story. I learnt how to understand the message from the producer through all those parts, and to express myself in the ways other than ‘talking’. I remember Julian Bryant who talked about ‘how to rate a theatre production—artistic value, social impact and business potential’ during the graduation exhibition, I think that is really very useful!

Li Che Kwan

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Frinton experience

For years I've known about Frinton-on-Sea weekly rep - but only last night did I finally get to go. It's being run by a guy called Eddie Max, who I knew at Oxford a mere 25 years ago, and who found me on Facebook, and sent me an invitation. Well, it had to be!

Frinton is famous for being tiny but professional, and for running a summer season on the old system of one play in rehearsal and one in performance, for a week each. It all happens in what looks like a church hall with a tiny stage, one front of house bar, tabs, and Ed himself selling raffle tickets before the show. Before the play starts, the National Anthem is played, and everybody stands up. It's like travelling back half a century or more.

Which said, Ed has got some very talented people to go there and sample the experience. I saw a Neil Simon comedy, directed by Antony Clark, no less. Jonathan Holloway is also on the bill for the summer. So these are professional people, and no mistake! I asked Tony what it was like to direct a play in a week. "You just do it", he said.

I was sorry to get an email from Nancy Crane a little while ago, saying she couldn't be in Re-Orientations. She's been one of the mainstays of this project for years - but long-term contracts at the Old Vic don't get offered very often, and I understand why she took it. The replacement is a wonderful performer called Geraldine Alexander. I'm excited to be working with her.

Friday, July 16, 2010


LIFT continues to be very exciting. Yesterday, I was at the discussion of Theatre from the Arab World in the afternoon, and then in the evening went to see Aftermath in the Old Vic tunnels. This is an American piece, by the same team that created The Exonerated, and again makes use of verbatim testimony. The witnesses whose words are used are all refugees from Iraq, now living in Jordan, and each with a horror story to tell. It's done incredibly well, with lots of humour, warmth, and humanity. The acting is very compelling, without being totally naturalistic - you are always aware that this is an actor relaying somebody else's words, particularly since much play is made of the translator, who was presumably present at all the interviews. The actors speak in English almost all the time - but he is always there and is frequently told to translate.

I often don't like verbatim theatre, because it's often undramatic and preachy. This was neither. My other concern about verbatim remains, however. In bringing us close to the psychology, the humanity of these victims, it loses sight of the wider political structures which caused this suffering in the first place. Even a play like Talking to Terrorists, which engaged with the "bad" side, rather than the "victims", reduced terrorism to a psychological aberration.

Friday, July 09, 2010


For a while, we've been wrestling with a cash flow problem. The EU grant, which is the bulk of the funding for Re-Orientations, only pays the last 30% after the entire project is finished and accounted for. This means that we have to spend quite a lot of money before we've got it. The main banks don't seem to understand how charities work, and have been singularly unhelpful. One banker actually said to me: "We can't lend to a charity. I mean - they don't make profits, you know!"

Luckily, we found out about Venturesome, which is a really terrific organisation working in just the way we need. Two of their people, Emilie and Rob, came to our office last week, and talked for two hours about the overall mission of the company, and the arts sector as a whole, as well as the particular project. And yesterday came the agreement to give the loan. A huge relief.

Emilie said that their internal meeting turned into a discussion about arts organisations in general, and ways in which they can develop through social enterprise etc. as the cuts in grant aid start to bite. We do need to start thinking like this.....

Friday, July 02, 2010

Chinese language blog

Thanks to Che Kwan, we now have a Chinese language blog on Re-Orientations. Check it out here.

這是 Re-Orientations 的中文博客, 點撃這裡看看!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I've been in Cardiff for a few days, teaching on the Rose Bruford Opera course's residential school. Last night was very memorable indeed: the WNO's Meistersinger, directed by Richard Jones, with Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs.

I remember seeing a Graham Vick production at the ROH, years ago, with John Tomlinson as Sachs, and being very disturbed by the overt German nationalism of the ending. In Germany, it's so discomforting that one recent production actually stopped the opera at this point, and unleashed a debate - both onstage and off - as to whether these things could be said today. Richard Jones has wonderfully reclaimed the piece from the Nazi shadow, by relating Sachs' call for German art to a tradition of liberal humanist thought and artistic leadership which is totally contrary to Nazism. Bach, Handel, Goethe, Joseph Beuys, Marlene Deitrich, Brecht and many more are explicitly cited as the tradition into which Sachs tells the Romantic poet Walther he must become absorbed. We need youth, rebellion and romanticism, yes - but we also need control and rationality. In this incredibly dialectical piece, Walther unleashes the anarchy of Romanticism, which Sachs understands and is attracted to - and then fuses with the tradition. Of course, if you think of that tradition as racist and violent, then the opera is repulsive. But if the tradition is seen as open, humane and rational - then this is a piece for the current moment. It didn't feel so much German as European. Not conservative but radical. And actually, incredibly moving.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Life Streaming

LIFT is back as a Festival, and very exciting it is too. I went yesterday morning to see Life Streaming, knowing that it was a morning performance by the river, and would in some way relate to the tsunami (which interests me because of Re-Orientations).

It's an amazing experience. The "performance" (it is a performance, but not in a conventional way) happens through the internet. The 20 people in the London audience are linked to 20 people in an Asian country (we're only told which at the end, and asked not to spoil the revelation for others). So it's like a one-to-one piece - with moments of communion with the other performers and the rest of the audience. A lot of the time the piece seems to be about yourself - although, having compared notes with Nisha, it's actually a lot more precisely scripted than it at first appears. Through an awareness of our own affluence, our ease, and our own sense of loss, we are gradually led to question the relationship that is developing with the person in Asia - to think about its economic meaning, its politics, its emotional validity (or otherwise).

I emailed all my UK cast and told them to try and see it. It takes you to the heart of the tsunami experience, and places you in a discomforting relationship to it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Welcome to Thebes

We've been helping the National to publicise this show. They asked us because of our interest in African theatre - although I'm not sure that Welcome to Thebes is African theatre so much as Western theatre about global concerns, including Africa. That, I suppose, makes it intercultural in a way, and even closer to our remit. What makes it distinctly not the sort of work we do is that, for all the African performers on the stage, the African voice is not present in the play. The writer, Moira Buffini, looks at Liberia (and other post-conflict zones) through Western eyes, as perhaps she must - and the framing is Greek mythology. This made it a very interesting piece for me to watch: Brian Woolland and I have been talking about another piece which might meld Greek myth with the realities of the contemporary world.

In the end, I'm not sure Buffini quite pulls it off - but it's a brave effort. The allusive quality of myth is helpful in making the play not specifically about a particular situation, although you can clearly see the figure of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the new President of Thebes, Euridyce, and casting David Harewood as Theseus, the First Citizen of "democratic" Athens brings Obama to mind (even though the character is more like Bill Clinton). But the names, the presence of figures like Antigone and Tiresias, seem to pull the play into the philosophy of tragic destiny, and to deny the possibility of the change which the central character is attempting to create. Perhaps this is a dramatic tension, or perhaps it is a flaw. I can't really decide. But I know it's interesting.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Big hArt

On Friday afternoon, I was at Australia House for a presentation by Big hArt from Australia. This is a company we've been close to for some time, ever since we started discussing bringing their amazing production of Ngapartji Ngapartji to Origins last year. We didn't manage it - mainly because it would have involved 50+ flights from Australia, which is pushing it - but now that we are looking at the next Festival, they are also developing a one-man version of the piece, which is altogether more manageable. It's this idea which was shown to us on Friday.

Trevor Jamieson, who was part of our First Nations Advisory Panel and helped us to launch the Festival in that same room in 2007, tells his family history in this show. It's an extraordinary story of destruction and survival - and in this version he is juxtaposed with video footage of interviews with Elders (many of whom actually appeared in the original version). This less formal, less showy version of the show is in many ways more immediate for a British audience than the grand spectacle of the original.

Talking to Scott Rankin afterwards, I get the impression that this is how his thinking is currently moving. The new Big hArt project, with which Trevor will again be involved, is a direct engagement with the mining companies who are ripping up the Aboriginal homelands. He's right, of course - if we just make shows that talk to the converted, we get nowhere. The people who we somehow have to reach are the decision makers, the people with power. As Peter Sellars says about opera - talk to the people you think you don't like.

We're looking at working in partnership with the City of London Festival next year - and it's started me thinking about all those City board rooms.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Ngugi wa Mirii

I got a copy of the latest edition of African Theatre, and saw an obituary for Ngugi wa Mirii. I hadn't heard - but he died in a road accident in 2008, aged only 56. The obituary, by his more famous namesake Ngugi wa Thiong'o, is very elegantly written. They worked together in the early years of African community theatre, especially the famous Kamairiithu theatre. The Moi dictatorship drove them both into exile. Ngugi was Thiong'o went to the US, and Ngugi wa Mirii to Zimbabwe - like many African intellectuals and idealists (among them Ama Ata Aidoo), who believed that the newly independent nation could become a model for the continent.

It was in Zimbabwe that I met Ngugi wa Mirii in 1997. He had been there 15 years, and had established ZACT (Zimbabwe Association of Community Theatres): an extraordinary organisation which facilitated Theatre for Development on a grand scale throughout the region. The methodology was similar to Boal in Brazil - he showed me a framed photograph of himself shaking hands with Paolo Freire, mounted proudly on his wall. He also gave me a T-shirt, which I still have. It lists the many types of theatre which ZACT presented on the back, and on the front it says "Theatre for Conscientization and Development". I don't wear it often - just when I want to make a point. It usually works.

Saturday, June 12, 2010


I've been reading Maria Delgado and Dan Rebellato's new book on European Directors. It's exciting to see a different angle on the role of the director - who is accepted in Europe as being a creative artist and not, as in Britain and America, as simply the interpreter of "the author's intentions". How are you supposed to know the author's intentions anyway? Who was the last person who spoke to Shakespeare? Even if we could ring him up, he might not know. People lie about their intentions - even to themselves. So, if you ask me, it's better to regard them as something we can't know, and get on with the business of being creative on a European model.

The idea of Europe and the idea of directing both encompass debates over democracy. I was in Brussels on Tuesday, for the annual meeting of the Platform for an Intercultural Europe. It was a fascinating event, as much as anything to see the European Commission paying for itself to be criticised, and strongly recognising the importance of the cultural sector in broader policy-making. But it was also very odd to see so few people present from the minority and migrant communities under discussion. An intercultural Europe is not a solely white, educated, Anglophone Europe. I volunteer to look into hosting a Practice Exchange session, where we can explore the ways in which cultural work can open up real dialogues, and to have the dialogues largely initiated by BME practitioners.

It's the same debate that runs through Maria and Dan's book. Declan Donnellan talks about the need for somebody to be in charge, and Romeo Castellucci, more intriguingly, says that his response to our individualist world is to stress the solitariness of the artist. This is in contrast to figures like Mnouchkine, who continue to believe in collective creation, and democratic collaboration within a theatre company, and between companies and communities. The book, perhaps not consciously, seems to regard Mnouchkine as rather old-fashioned in this respect: a hangover from 1968. The modern director, Castellucci's solitary artist, puts across a personal vision to which other individuals respond.

My own work, as a director of intercultural theatre, has to be closer in approach to Mnouchkine - so it's a bit disturbing to feel that Europe, which presents a more liberating model of theatre practice than Britain, may think I'm a bit past my sell-by date. But then, Europe is only to be trusted, and can only succeed, in so far as it becomes democratic itself. The Platform is a step towards democracy - but the Commission itself remains very undemocratic - operating like a "vision-imposing" solitary director. While this remains, it will never be intercultural and dialogic - and theatre which is imposed from above cannot espouse these values either.